On Monday, May 4th, I received an email from U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate Division that my thesis was accepted. I was on the edge of my seat holding back my burgeoning excitement. I assumed this was the email I had been waiting for since submitting my thesis a week ago to fulfill my final graduation requirement, but I didn’t want to celebrate prematurely until I knew this was true.
I emailed my graduate division representative for my program to double-check my assumption, and then sat down at the dinner table to eat with my mom and stepfather who I have been with since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My phone beeped, and I read the email from the graduate representative, “Your thesis was accepted. You did it!”
A weight lifted from my shoulders, and I became giddy, elated…relieved.
I did not expect to feel this way. I had already met all of my graduation requirements last December and participated in a ceremony with my class. Making a few changes to my thesis and submitting it for approval was mostly a formality.
Finishing my thesis though did not just mean I had finished my academic requirements. It meant an end of an era. A journey I had started back in June 2017 when I moved across the country to start the Joint Medical Program (JMP).
No one could have predicted that during this time I would face my father’s death, and my second recurrence of brain cancer. When I was diagnosed in March 2018, I thought I would eventually leave the Bay Area with no degree, and go back into the no-mans-land of life as a young adult with cancer.
Instead, I took a chance on my community in the Bay Area, and decided to do my surgery at UCSF. I stayed in Oakland for my recovery and subsequent treatments, and reduced my school schedule to part-time to focus on my Masters.
None of this would have been possible without the support of my family, friends, and the JMP community (…my classmates and faculty).
When I was accepted to the JMP, they said, “To come to the JMP is to enter a family.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but now I do. In the toughest of circumstances, everyone lifted me up and stood by my side. Whether it was helping me complete my academic requirements, providing meals, or simply hanging out, there was always someone I could rely on.
And so, when I found out my thesis was accepted, it didn’t just mean I had completed my Masters. At first I felt jubilation. Despite the odds, I finished graduate school! But then the moment became bittersweet. I realized my time on the West Coast, my time with my JMP family, had come to an end.
In the subsequent days, I felt grateful to every person who helped me get to where I am today.
I leave the JMP and my time on the West Coast a stronger individual with clarity on what is most important to me in my life. I leave with no regrets because my heart is full.
When I cannot write an email to my faculty, classmates, or even a blog like this without tearing up, I know I’ve done something right.
I’m not sure if I believe in fate, but I think I was meant to be at the JMP when going through my recurrence. To be surrounded by some of the most warm, generous, and empathetic people I have ever met.
Despite all of the obstacles I faced, this is truly an end of a beautiful period in my life
I now start a new chapter in Boston with a mixed beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the inequities existing throughout society, but there are some shining lights in my life during these dark times. I am with my family, close to my partner, and we have introduced a new character to our life story, my nephew Zachary (…with a couple others on the way). My family and I are privileged that we are able to weather this storm and continue to have blessings during these turbulent days.
With record unemployment, I’m immensely grateful and privileged to have also accepted a job as Senior Program Coordinator with Harvard’s Planetary Health Alliance. I am excited to combine my passion for the environment and public health, and especially at a time like this, to bridge health equity and environmental justice.
Planetary Health focuses on the human health impact of global environmental change. One such focus is infectious disease. This pandemic is the equivalent to when a dam breaks. But we should ask, “What caused the influx of water that broke the dam?” How did we get to where we are today? COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease meaning it jumped from animals to humans. Over time we have seen more of these disease transfers because we are pressing into forest habitats once left untouched. We are creating more demand for timber, palm oil, and other resources. With demand comes a need for supply.
Planetary health considers what can be done upstream before we encroach on these important habitats. How do we close the faucets that lead to these pandemics? What about the faucets that lead to natural disasters from climate change, droughts, pollution, poor nutrition, and even mental health challenges and civil unrest?
I’m grateful to collaborate with hundreds of partner universities, non-governmental organizations, research institutes, and government entities from around the world committed to understanding and addressing these issues.
So I start a new chapter, one guided by my values for family, my relationships, and using my experiences to help others.
While my time on the West Coast may have come to an end, I will forever stay connected to everyone who came into my life, and who I now consider lifelong friends.
Below is the acknowledgements page from my thesis. (…don’t tell Berkeley I’m plagiarizing my own writing). I share this as a bookend to an unforgettable, life-changing 2.5 years.
While I reflect on my past, I am ready to write my next chapter.